Skirt Books: “The Last Romantics”

By Lorna Hollifield

I’m going to start with the criticism this time because I’d prefer to end on the silver lining. After all, don’t we all like a little bit of sunshine after the clouds? I know that after one of those famous late-spring Charleston thunderstorms comes through – the kind that get so dark so fast that all the church steeples disappear from the skyline and you start praying to God from the shoulder of 526 – that I can’t wait for that first rainbow to appear over the crest of whatever bridge I might be on. I’m going to pound on this book a little bit first … hail, lightning and all, but there is going to be some color at the end. You have my word.

 I chose the book “The Last Romantics” by Tara Conklin because it is a family epic that examines love and life, as well as the complexities of family dynamics after a major loss. I knew that it would give me some great thoughts of motherhood for the glorious month of May. Unfortunately, I found a book that sort of word-vomited onto me, with entire decades of life being spilled out over the course of 10 pages. A lot of the novel was told like a recap instead of shown through dialogue and relationships, which turned me off a bit and made it hard to connect with the characters at times.

Moreover, the way our strong feminist characters were celebrated put a damper on my mood. They often were only portrayed as “tough” once they’d become so jaded that they’d completely hardened their hearts or had torn apart every relationship in their lives. I’m the first to admit (from experience) that sometimes the discovery of self comes after disappointment or the disintegration of relationships. But it isn’t that way every time, for every woman, which this book demands. In the end I hope that the hardening fades and that there is room for love again, which this book also fails to point out. It feels a bit pessimistic to a fault.

Now for the good news. This novel is written in a unique structure that I find riveting. The story is told from 2079, written about the past that is actually largely focused on the reader’s modern day. It is a way of examining current times underneath a very original microscope. It isn’t futuristic in a dystopian way but in a way that lets us examine our lives as if in retrospect. That makes the story haunting like a period piece, yet relatable to today. I love it. As a writer I wish I’d thought of it.

Now for the best news. This novel did indeed make several comments on motherhood that I think we can appreciate. I wasn’t a huge fan of the mother in the book. A three-year deep depression in her life after the death of her husband not only changed the course of all of her children’s lives but changed her into a fatalistic and harsh personality interested in only survival.  I hoped that eventually time would open this woman up to the possibility of love and laughter again, but that wasn’t the case. However, at the end of the day, she tried to love her kids the best she could from the broken heart she had.

That’s when I thought about this: Most of our mothers are far from perfect. Not all of them are the June Cleavers of the neighborhood. Some of them are the Noni Skinners (from this novel). But almost all of them have done a couple of things right. They gave us life; they gave us the voice in our heads that has kept us safe; and they gave us their fandom. Regardless of their triumphs or missteps, they want better for us than they had. Sometimes that shows by being our biggest fans and sometimes by being our harshest critics.

But I leave you with this: Our mothers begin the epic that becomes our lives. They are often responsible for the good and bad. It is up to us to focus on which part matters the most – just like I am choosing to put the rainbow at the end of this review – instead of letting the bad parts splash in as they like, you can choose to put your host of lights wherever you want them in your life. You have the ability to write in that rainbow so that you finish strong.

Literary events:
May 14: Jennifer Palmieri, former communications director for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, discusses her best-selling book “Dear Madam President: An Open Letter to the Women Who Will Run the World.” Free. Blue Bicycle Books’ courtyard, 420 King St. Visit bluebicyclebooks.com for more information.
May 30: Mary Laura Philpott discusses her new collection of essays, “I Miss You When I Blink.” 6 p.m. Blue Bicycle Books, 420 King St. More information at bluebicyclebooks.com.
June 5: Wine and conversation with Patti Callahan Henry for the release of her new novel, “The Favorite Daughter.: 5:30-7 p.m. at Buxton Books. Tickets available at buxtonbooks.com.
June 7: “The Lost Queen” by Signe Pike paperback release party. Free. 7 to 9 p.m. Holy City Brewing, 4155 Dorchester Road, North Charleston. For more information, visit buxtonbooks.com.
June 9: Buxton Books and Skirt magazine host a Summer Series to celebrate the launch of Mary Alice Monroe’s latest novel, “The Summer Guests.” 3 to 5 p.m. Dockery’s, 880 Island Park Drive, Daniel Island. Tickets available at buxtonbooks.com.
June 18: Buxton Books and Skirt magazine host a Summer Series to celebrate the release of “The Batik Art of Mary Edna Fraser” with author Cecelia Dailey and Mary Edna Fraser. 5:30 p.m., 154 Cannon St. 

Send book events to submissions@skirt.com with Skirt Books in the subject line for consideration.